The Good, the Hopeful and the Ugly: Clean Energy in America and New England in the Fall of 2013

Sep 25, 2013 by 
Seth Kaplan is Vice President for Policy and Climate Advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation.

First, the good:  There’s some good news to report: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Connecticut are well on the way to implementing key provisions in the clean energy laws that CLF helped craft. These provisions ensure that for years to come the residents of both states will enjoy the benefit of clean and cost-effective renewable energy generated by solar and wind power.

In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports, the utilities are proposing to buy 565 Megawatts of wind power from six wind projects in Maine and New Hampshire.  At least two of those projectswill be built by Boston based First Wind.

The Connecticut utilities, reports the Hartford Courant, are proposing to purchase 270 Megawatts of clean power, with 250 of those Megawatts coming from a wind farm in Aroostook County, Maine and 20 Megawatts from a solar project in Sprague and Lisbon, Connecticut.

For over a decade, Conservation Law Foundation has been advocating for states to encourage and require these kind of cost-effective long term contracts between utilities and renewable energy developers (in financial jargon, “going long”). These kinds of contracts are a smart and cost-effective way of managing the transition to a clean energy economy and are consistent with the restructured competitive electricity system and markets that CLF helped to create in our region in the 1990’s. CLF supported similar contracts to make the Cape Wind project possible and worked to shape the laws in both Massachusetts and Connecticut that enabled and mandated the contracts that have just been proposed in both states.

And from Washington, hopeful news: Environmental Protection Agency administrator (and wicked big Red Sox fan) Gina McCarthy announced that EPA is moving forward with the regulations required by the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of Carbon Dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas causing global warming, from new power plants. As CLF noted in our statement hailing this move:

The emissions limits proposed by EPA are critical to reducing the climate pollution that is raising sea levels, increasing extreme weather events and imposing devastating consequences on people and countries around the globe . . . For the past ten years, actions by the northeast states and countless power plant owners in the region have demonstrated that reducing greenhouse emissions is not only good environmental policy, but also enhances the region’s economic prosperity by more efficiently and cost effectively making and using electricity. Our long experience in decreasing electric sector greenhouse gas emissions in New England, while also reducing energy costs, has blazed a path for EPA to follow in implementing the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

In a moving and unusually personal essay, Ms. McCarthy explained the regulations and put them the context of her long career in Massachusetts that began with her work as a town public health agent:

I didn’t plan for a life built around protecting the environment. In fact, I started my career as a health agent in the town of Canton, Mass., and later worked for the Stoughton Board of Health. But at some point I realized that at its core, the issue of a clean environment is a matter of public health. The two are inextricably linked.

This is the perspective that we need to embrace – focusing on the practical connection between reducing emissions and protecting the public health.  This perspective underlay the efforts to slash dangerous emissions in the Northeast and is a solid foundation for the work that EPA is now doing nationally.

And, sadly and unsurprisingly, the “Ugly” is found on Capitol Hill in Washington DC: Recently, I wrote here about what a great choice President Obama made when he nominated Ron Binz of Colorado to be a Commissioner (and the Chairman) of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Mr. Binz is a reasonable and moderate man with an even temperament, a good sense of humor, deep knowledge of the energy world, the ability to see things from a range of perspectives (drawing on his broad experience as a consumer advocate, businessman and state energy regulator) and a clear sense of how to manage the difficult transition that the energy system is experiencing.

It is therefore very disappointing that his nomination is “in trouble.” Mr. Binz is being attacked for having had incidental contact with a lobbying firm hired by others to respond to the massive and unprecedented campaign against his nomination. The closest thing to a substantive complaint against Mr. Binz is this: he has stated that if the Federal government continues to move forward with the regulation of greenhouse gases that, unless carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is perfected and made commercial for natural gas fired power plants so they can run without contributing to global warming, gas will no longer be usable as a major fuel at some point in the future.  In public remarks, that reflect very mainstream thinking in the energy industry, he noted this reality and said that absent CCS the move away from gas must begin before 2035, using the phrase “dead end” to describe the situation.  If you have an appetite for deep engagement of complex energy issues featuring Jim Rogers, the retiring CEO of Duke Energy and Mr. Binz check it out on Youtube – the “controversial” remarks used to create a phony controversy can be found around the 30 minute mark.

Given the current state of affairs on Capitol Hill it is possible, if not likely, that this excellent nomination will fail. That would be a shame indeed.

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